Thursday, August 12, 2010

On theory of Knowledge

I had condensed the basic part of Buddha’s teaching into a sentence in the previous post and it cannot be much intelligible to those who are following these notes without some detailed explanations on what they actually mean. But before venturing into an analysis of the 12 causes of misery Buddha found, I would like to touch up on some general aspects of philosophical speculation. Buddha was the first to formulate a definite system of philosophy that relied entirely on reason and logic in the world and was particular about defining terms in his system. Till his time philosophy was a mixture of intuitive or poetic insights on life and magical formulas to make life better and superstitious belief’s that went without being questioned. He changed all that and introduced the greatest analytical structure that is found in human history. Let us check the background to his inestimable work. I hope you would forgive the digression because it’s more to provide a basis for what is to come next.

Any real and meaningful system of thought needs to be backed up by a theory of knowledge and unless we are aware how knowledge originates and is stored it would be impossible to speculate on the finer points of life and philosophy. This in its turn demands a definition of terms that are employed in the thought process. I have a distaste for words like epistemology, ontology etc, so I would try not to use them in my article and would like to keep it simple. It might displease some who like things in the abstract. That would of course make the article intelligent and abstruse but if that’s what you are after then there could be any number of tomes around that would keep you occupied for the rest of your life and would shed no more insight into the heart of things as a halogen lamp would shed light on its own innards.

Anyway I am not comfortable with those finer terms of philosophy as well! Whenever I see them I have a serious doubt that they are playing with my poor intellect and trying to hoodwink me into the mires of complexities that I can’t escape from. This comes of being immersed in such abstract systems of thought for a considerable period in my life. May be it’s because of my lack of intelligence or the inherent lethargy; I have only gained one insight from all that hard work-That I am not as wise as I took myself for! The only consolation is that I am in good company. Socrates is said to have expressed the same sentiments when he was on trial.

Not that I am as wise as that great sophist too, for he was able to meet all the geniuses and intellectuals and artists of his time in person and put questions to them that they can’t answer! It was easy then. Athens was a small city state and one could meet people if one is ready to put some effort into it. But how is one to put questions to dead authors? The efforts to learn their works have left me with a firm belief that the writers of those toms are as unaware of reality as I am and was only trying to pass time by composing such delightful nonsense! This goes for the moderns too. One has to keep up pretenses of being intelligent doesn’t one? May be my effort is one such too, though I believe that the great soul I am talking about would show me better sense than that of trying to be egotistical!

Let us come back to the theory of knowledge which has to be the foundation of any system of thought. There is a notion that the Samkhya and Yoga systems existed prior to the period of Buddha, but we have no evidence for it other than the similarities in approaches found in them. The Samkhyas had a theory of knowledge that formed the basis of their analysis of life. It is helpful to learn of it before we start talking about the matter we are interested in.

If you ask anybody versed in philosophy in India they would tell you that there are mainly three methods to acquire knowledge. They are 1) by Direct perception 2) by Inference 3) and through Recorded Knowledge. These would look obvious to anyone once they have learned about them, for there are no other methods to gain knowledge. Yet it is not as easy to keep it fresh in mind at all times, is it?

Direct perception is the knowledge gained through our senses. Senses are 14 in number (14? you haven’t heard about this one have you? The ancient Indians were so meticulous about their definitions!), Five externals (Eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin) and five internals (the centers to which these outer organs report their readings) and mind. I have said this even before- the Indians consider mind as an internal organ (Antakarana) or more precisely an organ with four parts (Psyche, nous, intellect and ego) and not a part of spirit. This is a subtle point to grasp and it would take time to do that for those who have been brought up with the belief that mind is sentient. These parts of the mind would look similar to you but they are not in Indian philosophy. Every single part does a particular job.

Buddha had simplified the matters somewhat by maintaining that there are only six senses. He included the internals in the external. So he would only speak about the six-fold realm of entanglement. He considered this primary.

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